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In Theory: How PS3 can own 3D gaming

Much more than a quirky side project.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Rumours are gathering pace, technological demonstrations have been made, statements have been issued... and then retracted. Sony is planning something massive for stereoscopic 3D gaming, and the potential is hugely exciting. While true 3D was thought to have been a possibility only for next-gen consoles, Sony will introduce a fully working system for PlayStation 3 in 2010, years ahead of its rivals. And there's nothing they can do to compete.

Make no mistake: stereo 3D, after motion control, will be the next battleground for the major console platform holders. Movies are being made in 3D (you know it's serious when James Cameron gets involved, as he is with his new film, Avatar), an enhanced Blu-ray standard is in the offing, Sky is gearing up to transmit sports events in 3D, and yup, inevitably, George Lucas has said that 3D versions of the Star Wars films are in development. It's textbook convergence, and gaming is set to play a hugely important role in the establishment of 3DTV in the mainstream.

The PlayStation 3 side of the story starts at the Las Vegas CES show in January of this year: a Sony 3DTV demo shows three games running in full stereoscopic 3D and visitors to the trade show, including, amongst others - IGN - are deeply impressed with what they see. But annoyingly, few people ask anything like the right questions about the technology, making it yet another one of those seemingly unimportant events I don't visit, but end up wishing that I had. [Such as my birthday party. - Ed]

Stereoscopic 3D relies on faster refresh rates and demands that the console produces individual images for each eye. Namco-Bandai made a 3D version of Ridge Racer 7 for the arcades in Japan, but its 1080p output is divided between each eye, turning a 60FPS game into an effective 30FPS experience. No such complaints about the WipEout HD or GT5 demos at CES, and indeed, Motorstorm: Pacific Rift is also demoed. If that was running at an effective 15FPS, down from the game's standard 30FPS, the experience would be ruined. The inclusion of MotorStorm is evidence enough that Sony has got something special cooking. The first, obvious conclusion was that, similar to Polyphony Digital's 4K and 240FPS tech demos, networked PS3s were being used to create the discrete images for each eye.

Fast forward to CEDEC 2009, and the WipEout HD demo is back along with claims (quickly denied by Sony) that the technology can be enabled with a firmware update, and that all PS3 games can benefit. Not only that, but check out the picture in the Engadget link there - that's a single PS3 Slim in operation with a normal HDMI link. The 3D glasses are confirmed to be using shutter technology similar to the current NVIDIA 3D vision specs. And now, further news emerges, saying that the processing technology is located within the Bravia 3DTV, but Sony may plan on porting it over to the PS3 itself so that it'll work on any 3DTV, not just the firm's own displays.

The "easy" solution would be for Sony to come up with a bespoke algorithm that translates computer imagery into a 3D picture. You plug in your games console and away you go: 3D from any source and it should look great if the existing demos are an indication. But in actuality, that's got to be one hell of a good algorithm to work consistently on all games. A lot of 120Hz HDTVs out there at the moment have algorithms for interpolating HD content into smoother 120FPS images. When it looks good, it can be wonderful... but when the algorithm fails, it can look pretty awful. The process of generating a 3D stereoscopic image would be inordinately more complex.

Of course, Sony could probably get this right and deploy it in its new displays, but it wouldn't be PS3 exclusive, and one badly interpolated experience could put off any number of potential buyers. Plus there's talk of a PS3 firmware update introducing the new mode. If the processing was entirely down to the display, no update would be needed. I contacted SCEE to ask about the demos, but was told that the "the team managing the 3D gaming aren't ready to talk about tech specifics at the moment" - illuminating, in that a TV-specific algorithm probably wouldn't require a dedicated team within Sony. The plot thickens.

Internet legend Quaz51, responsible for outing sub-HD gaming on PS3 and Xbox 360, and creator of a fully working mechanical calculator within LittleBigPlanet's level editor (!) came up with a far more intriguing suggestion. What if the PS3 and the display were communicating on a proprietary protocol over the HDMI port? He put forward the notion that the PS3 generates the usual 720p or 1080p image and beams that over the HDMI cable as usual, but along with each frame is "depth map" data that the Bravia screen, in concert with the 2D image, can use to generate the stereo images required for true 3D.